A most unique school culture

Maree Murphy is presented with flowers by Acting Principal Beverley Hartigan (left) and Deputy Principal Mary Fitzgerald (right).

St. Anne’s Community College has presented many outstanding theatrical productions by its lively students over the years, directed by teacher Maree Murphy. Thomas Conway reports from the Killaloe School

Cast your mind to a Saturday night on Broadway—the shimmering neon lights, the razzmatazz, the bling of a high-octane musical with a superstar cast. There is no greater theater of the dramatic arts, no greater stage on which the elite of the acting business could attempt to perform. Killaloe isn’t Broadway and St. Anne’s Community College isn’t the Lyceum Theater, but every once in a while, usually on a spring night, the school morphs into what might resemble an auditorium in downtown New York.

School musicals are a feature of most second-level colleges, but few, if any, tend to hit as high as St. Anne’s. Trust me. The shows are many things, on many levels, but as expressions of musical theater they are masterpieces of production. And behind it all is Maree Murphy, who at her core choreographs, directs, consults and just generally has a good time. The English teacher has been a staff member at St Anne’s for over a decade. During that time she has directed a number of outstanding productions, from Oliver to Grease to the multi-award winning Les Misérables and more recently Into the Woods. But the shows themselves are only half the story. By encouraging students to get involved and get involved, by challenging them to abandon all preconceived notions and simply try their hand at acting or singing, Maree has helped create a unique school culture where musicals and performances are valued and be admired.

At the moment, however, this culture is being questioned. The emotional and psychological effects of Covid on students remain. Her social and interpersonal development was virtually paralyzed for the guts of two years, and for many the notion of raising hands in class is likely still daunting, let alone the thought of performing onstage in front of an audience of potentially judgmental peers.

“We’re just trying to force ourselves back into getting the students to perform because they’re just really, really nervous and shy and reticent when it comes to speaking up. The last time we had a talent show we could have had up to 30 contestants or more, but this year I didn’t have to go into the classroom to persuade the students. So in the end we had 10 participants – a mixture of dance performances, solo singers and duets. So it was difficult to get the students back on stage, but we have such great talent in the school.”

Maree remains confident that fears will subside over time and the students will rediscover their passion for the stage. Cultivating enthusiasm is usually the first step, but the process of making music is long, complex, and extraordinarily demanding. It’s not a task Maree has ever taken lightly, nor is it one she’s ever regretted, it must be said. For her, however, everything revolves around the students. These musicals, like everything else, are personal development stories. The students have shaped the show from the very beginning, as she explains: “Mostly I go and see something, and if it’s a really good show and I can’t get it out of my head, then I start worrying about it I have to do. But I have a few shows floating around in my head when we do the auditions and depending on who comes in I usually see a character in someone: there’s a Fagan or there’s a Madame Thenardier. Then I try to fit others around them and it usually just works.”

MULTIPLE RHYTHMS

St Anne’s is a multi-beat school. It has a sporty beat. Hurling, Gaelic football and camogie play a central role. Badminton and basketball have written numerous success stories. St Anne’s has produced inter-county hurlers, League of Ireland footballers and even an Olympic swimmer, and yet the culture in the classrooms extends well beyond sport. In fact, Maree’s influence helped make the drama “cool.” The actors who take to the stage are as much admired as the athletes who crowd the courts. Part of the reason for this is that the shows always take place on the home turf, in the school auditorium, where the atmosphere is so febrile and electric it rivals any hall on Broadway.

“What I love about it is the fact that we have the shows here at St Anne’s at school because it’s just so much more personal – it feels like home. I know a lot of schools in Limerick are paying to maybe rent out the Millennium Theater or the Lime Tree or something, but I’d much rather pack the school up for a couple of nights. Because that’s how everyone in the community talks about it – you go to SuperValu and everyone tells you, the students go over the bridge and they hear big beeps from all the cars. In that respect it’s great.”

Many of Maree’s students have achieved extraordinary things – Eva O’Connor is now an award-winning actress and playwright; Hugh Finnerty is developing his own profile as a fashion stylist in New York. Both graduated from St Anne’s informal acting academy, and while she downplays her influence out of sheer humility, you suspect Maree’s presence at the school in some ways helped define their respective career paths. But the musicals themselves spur the students on to extraordinary achievements. The weeks leading up to a gig are basically organized chaos. Last-minute mix-ups, unforeseen dilemmas, technical disasters. Maree recalls an incident where Mark Sartini, who played the lead in Oliver, managed to sprain his ankle in the middle of a dress rehearsal. Needless to say, he bravely persevered. Anyone who knows him will tell you that he would never act in this musical.

HAVE FUN

But within the chaos, there is also a great deal of fun, made possible by the relationships that are formed between everyone involved. All are the same. Choir members are valued just as much as the lead character. And they care just as much. For Maree, that’s essentially the beauty of these productions. They foster deep friendships, create immortal memories and leave an emotional impression on everyone involved.

“Over the years I’ve gotten better at detaching myself from the show. In the beginning, with the first few musicals we did at school, they were just very emotional because the cast is like your family. You’re with them every night from 4 to 6pm and you get to know these kids so well, but when it’s all over you might never teach them again. And you might not see them at all, other than just passing them in the corridor or greeting them from afar. And it’s almost like the end of a friendship, the end of a relationship. So it’s difficult, and that’s why we usually end up all on stage and crying!”

Principal Beverley Hartigan and Vice Principal Mary Fitzgerald beam with pride as they discuss St Anne’s. They value their students, whether they are athletes, actors, musicians, or something else entirely. The school held its annual awards day on May 17 – an eclectic celebration of the talent currently walking the corridors. There were tributes to the school’s athletic heroes and heroines, an overall Student of the Year award to Patrick Ryan, roaring recognition for the teachers and staff who work so hard to nurture and guide the next generation. Whatever the stage, whatever the discipline, St Anne’s will always try to support its students – but the musicals are very special. There is an inestimable emotion in these performances. They bring teachers to tears and audiences in raptures, and for Maree they created a moment in time that she will always remember.

“It was my happiest moment here in St Anne’s – this musical Les Misérables. I had my father there and I had my aunt there and I swear to god it still brings tears to my eyes to this day. I would like to take myself back to that moment.”

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